Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Seeking the Elusive Autograph

As a fan of multiple sports, I have always been a bit enchanted by the elusive autograph of a sports star. My first love was baseball, and my first autographs were by baseball players. I was a child of the 1980's, as that sport started to build up the "walls" between the multi-millionaire players and the average fan.

I am lucky enough to have a dad who knew a major league pitching coach, and I have a baseball passed down to me that he got from the 1985 WS Champion KC Royals (one of his teams). A Hall of Famer, George Brett, is on there with the rest of the team. I didn't appreciate it much when I was younger, but, a few years later, I was an obsessed with getting my favorite team's autographs, the Cincinnati Reds.

That year was 1989, an interesting year for the Reds for those who are familiar with the Pete Rose fiasco, and I was staying with my family at the same hotel in Chicago as the players were staying. In the process of hanging out in the lobby, I can recall seeing the stars of that team, like Barry Larkin, Jose Rijo, Eric Davis, Rob Dibble, et.al., and truly being the kid that I was. I was tall for my age (almost 6'4" at the time as a 13-year-old), and I was even mistaken by a few older folks there as a baseball player (it made me laugh ... I guess I could have been a late-season call-up). I thought that Barry Larkin, my favorite player on the team, was the most gracious guy I could have imagined. Eric Davis, the team's star, was too money-obsessed for his own good and refused to sign autographs for anybody. It was clear there were more "Davises" out there than the good guys like Larkin. My autograph book was started, but I wouldn't really get more for years after.

I am posting in this forum as a NASCAR fan, a sport I didn't follow much during that same 1980's time period (although I was watching the open-wheel guys at the Indianapolis 500). I have to think that as I became a teenager in the early 1990's and was driving myself, I became more interested in watching motor sports. NASCAR was still pretty new to me, other than casual interest in the Daytona 500, and I don't remember really being hooked until I watched the 1993 race with Dale Jarrett winning and his dad, Ned, calling the action.

Fast forward into the much more recent past. I watched a number of memorable races on TV, but I had never been to a race in person. In 2002, I finally went to my first race. The tragedy that had occurred one year earlier with Dale Earnhardt, a man I had watched over those years, made me realize that the careers of drivers were too short. Since my at-the-track was experience was new and took me back to being a kid, I was once again interested in meeting drivers and, hopefully, getting some autographs. Although I didn’t take the time at my first race in Charlotte (at the Coca Cola 600), I did get some interaction at my first Bristol race later that summer. After the Sharpie 500 that night, I went over to the exit gate in Turn 3 (where the haulers, drivers, and teams would leave) in the hopes of seeing somebody I knew. Fate was on my side, as I happened to catch Winston Cup rookie, Ryan Newman, exiting after a disappointing night. Newman signed my hat (which wasn’t the greatest thing I had to sign, but I forgot about my program from the race), and my intent on getting driver autographs was started.

I didn’t attend any more races in 2002, but I did go back to the track for more in 2003. Before I went to my first race that year, I came prepared – buying a copy of the “NASCAR 2003 Preview and Press Guide” from Wal-Mart. I returned to Bristol that spring, but I came up empty looking for autographs (I would later learn that I should have been in the trailer rows earlier in the day). Things would change for the better when I went to the second race, only a couple of weeks later at Talladega. I browsed the trailers looking for the boards saying who would be signing and saw that the Roush drivers were signing (except for Mark Martin and Jeff Burton), but they were nearly all at the same time. I was torn with what driver I should pick, but I went with the winningest driver from the year before: Matt Kenseth. I thought maybe I would get lucky and headed over towards the Kurt Busch and Greg Biffle trailers, but I came up empty for tickets at both locations.

A little bit of luck then happened as some guys nearby, who had tickets for both Busch and Biffle, wanted to get something signed by Kenseth but had no ticket for him. I offered to bring one of the guy’s diecasts with me and my program, but I needed something to sign if I gave it to them. My book couldn’t be in two places, so I bought a Roush Racing jacket (as foolish as that may have seemed in retrospect, because Mark Martin was the only Roush driver I followed previously). I gave the guy my jacket to have signed in the Biffle line (with a nice silver Sharpie) while I headed over to the Kenseth line. I got two autographs at the same time (in the book and on the jacket), but I still wanted to have the book signed. I went over to Biffle’s trailer to trade the items back, and a guy in line said he would have my book signed, too, since he had only one item to be signed. How sweet was that?!? Kurt Busch was still signing at his trailer, so I decided hanging out there was worth a shot (maybe he’d sign extras?). I got in line, without a ticket, hoping that might be the case, but they cut off the line announcing that no tickets meant no autographs. I did use the opportunity to take his picture signing autographs for others, while paying little attention that there was a large camera off to my left. Little did I know they were filming segments for the NASCAR IMAX movie (I would find that out while watching the movie and seeing myself a year later!). I then hung out beyond the trailer, while talking to his then girlfriend, and even talked to Kurt briefly when he was getting into his golf cart (although he stopped signing autographs at that point). Well, with all of the effort, I did come away with two autographs in book (Kenseth and Biffle) and an autograph on my jacket (Biffle). I also managed to get Robby Gordon at his trailer (signing for just anybody who wanted it, which was pretty cool, but he also had no line).

The rest of the season, I went to a couple more races (Michigan and Bristol), but I came up empty. I got some photos of drivers, like Michael Waltrip at MIS, but no signatures. In the past two years (2004 and 2005), I have been able to collect the majority of my autograph collection. Two June 2005 sessions – one at the Roush Open House in Livonia, MI, before the MIS race and the other only a day later at a local Meijer location in Florence, KY, before the Busch race at Kentucky Speedway – provided many of the autographs I now have. I also was lucky enough to get my photo with Carl Edwards (which Speed happened to capture and show on the last episode of NASCAR Nation (the one with Krista Voda and Ralph Sheheen) before the program changed formats).

In only the past four years that I have been attending races and getting autographs, I now have (by my accounting immediately below) 31 unique autographs (from 17 drivers and 1 car owner).

2002 – Ryan Newman (NASCAR hat)
2003 – Matt Kenseth (fan guide), Greg Biffle (2 - fan guide and jacket), Robby Gordon (fan guide)
2004 – Bill Elliott (2 – two Dodge posters of him), Casey Mears (Richmond program)
2005 – Denny Hamlin and Randy LaJoie (Dover flag – hadn’t bought program yet), Kyle Busch (Dover program), Greg Biffle (2 - Dover program and Roush photo), Carl Edwards (2 - Dover program and Office Depot flier/photo … and I got a photo with Carl), Matt Kenseth (Roush photo), [and Jack Roush, 2 - on cover of Dover program and a Roush Racing flier/car photos, at Roush Racing Open House], David Green (3 – Dover program, Kleenex racing flier, and Kleenex matchbox car), Stacy Compton (2 – Dover program and Kingsford flier), Michel Jourdain Jr. (2 – Dover program and ppc Racing flier), David Stremme (Dover program), and Martin Truex Jr. (2 - Dover program and Kraft Racing flier), Kenny Wallace (fan guide and Dover program, and his wife Kim ;-)), Jimmy Spencer (fan guide), [and a photo with John Roberts after the Speed NASCAR This Morning show at Chicagoland]
2006 – none to date (no races until Bristol in August)

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